German Art Museum Tackles Legacy of Colonialism

Looking hard at its own collection, Kunsthalle Bremen aims to challenge the racism of colonialism that persists today

German Colonialism
Artists like Paula Modersohn-Becker sought to incorporate exotic elements into their art in Germany's colonial era, such as the bananas shown in this 1905 painting Kunsthalle Bremen

A new exhibit will be the first self-examination by a German art museum of the country's colonial past in Africa, Sarah Hucal reports for Deutsche Welle.

Germany was not a significant player in the "Scramble for Africa" in the late 19th century and early 20th century, during which the imperial powers of Europe carved up the continent for resources and power. The empire arrived late to the game and did not have the sizeable navy of countries like Portugal, the United Kingdom or the Netherlands. Nevertheless, it still established colonial German Southwest Africa and German East Africa. By 1914, it occupied more than one million square miles of territory.

Much of the resources extracted from these territories flowed to Germany through the northern port city of Bremen. That trade made the city wealthy, and contributed to cultural institutions like the revered Kunsthalle Bremen. Now, in a reflection on that colonial legacy, the museum is hosting an exhibit of objects in hopes of bringing awareness to Germany's colonial past, and the racism that continues today.

"Research on Germany's colonial past has been extensive," curator Julia Binter, an Oxford University anthropologist, tells Hucal. "Now it's time to start a discussion in society and ask what we can learn from it."

Titled "The Blind Spot," the research and exhibit project, sponsored by the Federal Cultural Foundation, showcases works from the museum's own collection from the colonial era, including pieces from colonial Africa that stylize European figures like Queen Victoria as well as pieces made by Europeans who in turn set out to capture that form to show the "exotic" foreign people and places of Africa, Hucal reports.

The exhibit doesn't merely look backwards; it also aims to take on the racism that can influence how people today view globalization, refugees and migration.

To incorporate the present into the exhibtion, "The Blind Spot" collaborated with Nigerian-German artist Ngozi Schommers, who created 50 portraits of German-African and West African women in the style of the colonial portraits done by European artists to contrast with the works done by European artists a century ago, reports Wyona Schütte of the Weser Report. A sculpture by Indian artist Amrita Sher-Gil of a woman from Tahiti also challenges the primitive and, often, erotic aura that many European artists during the colonial era imposed on foreign people in their works.

Binter tells Hucal she hopes this exhibit will inspire similar reflections in other European cultural institutions that have yet to tackle the legacy of the colonial era embedded in their collections.

"The Blind Spot" is on view at the Kunsthalle Bremen through November 19.

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